The State of Corrections in Georgia

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Every Georgian is affected by the criminal justice system in some way. Whether it is paying taxes to fund the more than a billion dollars spent on prisons each year or knowing a loved one who has spent time behind bars, the justice system is becoming an increasingly familiar issue in the lives of Georgians.

In 2009, the Pew Center on the States released a report revealing that 1 in 13 adults were under some form of correctional supervision in Georgia. This means that over half-a-million Georgians were either in jail, in prison, on parole, or on probation that year. This percentage far surpassed the national average, which was still an astonishing 1 in 31 adults under correctional supervision.

Even more staggering, 2.6 million people have a criminal record on file with the Georgia Crime Information Center, while the state’s total population is 10 million people. The collateral consequences associated with having a criminal record mean that as many as 1 in 4 Georgians likely face barriers to obtaining employment, housing, and even voting.

Currently, 53,000 people are incarcerated in Georgia, giving the state the fifth highest prison population in the nation. The incarcerated population more than doubled between 1990 and 2011, while the state’s general population increased by only half that rate during the same time period.

1 in 13 vs. 1 in 31-640

The Merry-Go-Round

Once a person enters the system, his or her likelihood of staying in it is fairly strong. The state releases 20,000 prisoners back into the community every year, and 2 out of 3 of those released are rearrested within three years. Nearly 1 in 3 are re-convicted within this time frame, resulting in re-incarceration.

While the state reports a recidivism rate of 30 percent over the past decade (determined by the number of offenders who are reconvicted within three years of release), the actual recidivism rate is closer to 50 percent – taking into account the number of people who commit a technical violation while on probation and parole, as well as the number of offenders who recidivate after the standard three-year time period.


The Cost

The effect of recidivism is very costly to the state: It negatively impacts public safety, results in burgeoning costs to taxpayers, and contributes to the breakdown of families.

Public Safety

Released offenders who continue to have unaddressed criminogenic (crime-producing) needs are likely to re-engage in criminal behavior and place themselves, their families, and their community at risk. Criminal behavior may arise from a substance abuse or mental health issue, from negative peer associations, from a poor family environment, from desperation caused by their inability to meet their basic needs for housing, employment, and transportation, and from a variety of other risk factors. Without addressing the underlying factors that lead returning citizens to engage in criminal behavior, the recidivism rate will continue to remain high as new crimes and technical violations of probation and parole are committed.


Recidivism places a heavy burden on taxpayers. The cost to incarcerate one person for a year in Georgia is $21,000 – more than twice the amount the state spends toward educating one student for a year. This means that every cohort of released prisoners that recidivates amounts to $130 million annually, given the 30 percent recidivism rate and the 20,000 offenders released each year. Further, state expenditures on incarceration reached $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2010 – more than twice the amount spent in 1990, which was $492 million. For the amount taxpayers have spent on the prison system in recent years, the outcomes have been unacceptable.


Finally, a person cycling in and out of prison creates instability in the life of his or her family. Significantly, 60 percent of inmates in Georgia are parents, and a number of these parents have been incarcerated more than once. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to perform poorly in school, to be exposed to their parent’s substance abuse, to use drugs, to experience mental health issues, to experience domestic violence, and to live in poverty. Incarceration puts a tremendous strain on existing relationships, decreases the chances that partners will marry, transforms family roles, and often leads custodial parents to depend on public assistance. Families experience shame, anger, hurt, and despair at the incarceration of loved ones, creating inner turmoil that is often never addressed.

Incarcerated Parents - Impact on Children

What Can Be Done?

Because of the enormous costs posed by incarceration and recidivism, it is essential for Georgia to promote solutions that will address underlying issues returning citizens face. This effort must take place at all points along the continuum, from the Governor’s Office down to individuals in the community.

Several areas of reform that Georgia Center for Opportunity’s Prisoner Reentry Working Group has addressed to improve reentry outcomes involve increasing employment opportunities (read report), restructuring debt, and developing the criminal justice and service provider workforce.


Employment plays a critical role in reducing offender recidivism, as it has the power to deter ex-offenders from crime and incentivize law-abiding behavior. Key barriers to employment that the working group identified include driver’s license suspensions, missing identification (i.e., Social Security cards and birth certificates), professional license restrictions, and employers’ negative perceptions.

To remove these barriers, the group recommended that the state lift suspensions on driver’s licenses for people who committed a non-driving related drug offense, offer incentives to employers to hire those with a criminal record, and have public and private employers postpone the question about an applicant’s criminal history to a later point in the interview process. Several of these recommendations were signed into law in April 2014.

Freight Worker


Various state agencies enforcing the payment of debts and obligations without considering the needs and financial circumstance of returning citizens can lead them to recidivate. Returning citizens often carry excessive debt because of missed child support payments that accrue during their incarceration, court-imposed fees, fines, and surcharges for their offense, unpaid restitution, and the inability for them to earn money while in prison.

Several steps that the state can take to encourage returning citizens to repay this debt in a realistic manner include: Identifying offenders with child support orders upon entry to prison; providing offenders with pertinent information about their child support responsibilities; providing a grace period of 90 days upon release that gives returning citizens the opportunity to find a job and get back on their feet; and providing incentives for returning citizens to pay current obligations of child support and restitution by forgiving a portion of fines, fees, surcharges, and child support arrears owed to the state.

Workforce Development

There is an urgent need for the criminal justice workforce and community service providers to be trained in delivering evidence-based programs and practices. Without proper training and implementation, Georgia’s recidivism rate is likely to remain unchanged.

The state can better ensure successful reentry outcomes are reached by providing training and support to agencies and service professionals in the use of evidence-based practices, developing a hybrid degree program that combines criminal justice training and case management techniques, ensuring a risk/needs assessment is used and followed from entry into prison to treatment in the community, providing the workforce the ability to use graduated sanctions and incentives, and providing accountability to the workforce to ensure evidence-based practices are being used.


Each person involved with this reentry effort, from the governor to mentors in the community, need to put into practice what has shown to work in reducing recidivism. This effort will require education, training, resources, and coordination on all fronts, and it is one that should be pursued with fidelity. Doing so will help to bring restoration to families, build stronger communities, and ensure a more just society.

Father and Son

Click here to view The State of Corrections infographic

Fellowship Friday: Team Retreat at City of Refuge

Meeting people “where they are” is foundational to Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) mission to serve the community and remove barriers to opportunity. As part of this mission, GCO team members recently participated in a unique weekend retreat at City of Refuge (COR), one of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelters for women and children. While this experience was an excellent platform for team bonding, the team also gained life-changing lessons from the residents of COR.


Linda Newton holds new friend at City of Refuge. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

Linda Newton holds new friend at City of Refuge. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

While many programs provide meals and clothing to the homeless, very few provide the opportunity to connect deeply with those being served. GCO’s retreat was graciously hosted by one such organization, Restoration ATL (RATL), a non-profit dedicated to creating urban ministry environments that foster healing. RATL’s director and weekend guide, Pastor Jim Ellison, emphasized with great passion that volunteers were there to simply “be with” the ladies and children to get to know them better.

Assimilating into life at the shelter was eased immediately by the children. Delivery Manager, Linda Newton, reflects on her initial moments at COR:

My first experience that weekend was with a 3-year old girl. She blind-sided me, running up to me from behind and immediately holding her arms up to me as if we were long-lost friends. I picked her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around me tight. She was absolutely a love, and we became fast friends.

As the children ushered in the team, dinner time provided opportunities to learn about the women of COR and the circumstances that led them to the shelter. While some women were more open than others, the stories and fellowship that flowed across the dinner table further broke the ice between volunteers and residents.

I had the pleasure of eating dinner with a woman named Liz. She shared with me that a house fire displaced her months earlier. This is a situation that could impact anyone! Throughout our encounter, Liz expressed great determination to rebuild her life and provide a future for her one month old son, who had actually been born during her time at City of Refuge. As I held Liz’s son and listened to her, I realized how much like a family member she was. This meaningful meal brought me a new perspective on what homelessness means in Atlanta.

Holding Liz's son at dinner. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

Holding Liz’s son at dinner. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

Stories of misfortune were common-place amongst the women, with job loss, mental illness, and domestic violence being just a few of the tragedies impacting their lives. Facing tough paths back to self-sufficiency, events such as the ice cream social–which followed dinner– served as small moments of enjoyment for the women and children alike.

Vice President of Operations, Chris Elder shares his thoughts on the ice cream social:

At the Friday night ice cream social, I had a difficult time discerning who was a resident and who was a volunteer. The women and the kids staying at City of Refuge looked just like the women and kids I see around Norcross. Some of the moms and older kids were even on their phones texting, checking Facebook, and playing games, a scene not unfamiliar in my house. The younger kids played hard and laughed like they were anywhere else but in a homeless shelter. I was left with a restored hope in the pure resiliency of children.  


Saturday brought deeper connections with acquaintances made just the day before, as well as enlightenment about the spiritual and emotional needs of those restoring their lives. The women’s morning group incorporated lively discussions about God’s love and building community.

Events Specialist, Katherine Greene writes:

I realized that all of us need community no matter where we live. These women did not choose to be homeless but even in their homelessness there is a strong need for community. Words like love, hope, forgiveness, and togetherness came up as we described a healthy community. It was great discovering things that we had in common. This helped us to learn more about each other and to find a connection to help us bond even more.


Katherine Greene enjoys women’s morning group. Courtesy, Restoration ATL

Planting vegetables in the community garden later in the afternoon further drove home the importance of community and the harvest that can come from working together. Through expressing feelings and getting hands dirty, personal barriers dissolved into understanding and warm smiles.

GCO team members also participated in a morning full of activities such as kick-ball and arts-and-crafts with the children of the shelter. While fun in nature, free time also revealed some of the hard effects of living in a shelter and family breakdown.

Breakthrough Fellow Michael Schulte writes:

Interacting with the kids reinforced several important lessons for me: Children are eager for attention and affection, they are incredibly adaptable to their surroundings, and they are significantly shaped by those who raise them. While playing with the children brought me a lot of joy, it also carried the sober reminder that a number of these kids come from abusive backgrounds. I saw this in a 12-year-old boy who verbally threatened and intimidated his peers every time they made him angry.  I am hopeful that City of Refuge will foster healing for a number of these kids and rebuild trust within relationships they have.

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Michael Schulte leads recreational activities at City of Refuge. Courtesy Restoration ATL

Experiencing both highs and lows at City of Refuge, it was clear by the end of the second day that no one was quite the same as when they arrived. There was an overwhelming sense of honor for having shared time in the lives of so many dynamic, insightful, inspiring, and tough individuals. Team members also found themselves humbled.

Elder writes:

It certainly put the trivialities of my life that I consider problems into perspective, and clearly illustrated how slippery the social mobility ladder can be for any of us. 

Greene writes:

I reflected back on some of my life’s most difficult circumstances and realized that these women were all teachers without even realizing it. They were teaching me (the student) how to listen to people and how to be grateful in everything.

RATL enhanced

Restoration ATL’s mission scripture. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity

The experience at City of Refuge and participation in Restoration ATL’s weekend retreat is one that will not soon be forgotten by the GCO team.

Newton writes:

My last experience at City of Refuge was with a former resident who had come back to volunteer with RATL. She and I spoke quite a bit through the course of the weekend and I learned that she was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, only about 3 years older than me. She had a great spirit and sense of humor and I really enjoyed talking with her. We have since communicated by text, and I hope to stay in touch with her. I fear that she will relapse, as she has many times in the past. I want to continue to encourage her and hope to be a positive influence in her life. I really want her to make it.

The residents of the shelter represent only a small group of Georgia’s 27,000 homeless men, women, and children. Taking the time to view Georgia’s homeless as the friends, loved ones, neighbors, employees, co-workers, and students that they are is vital to enacting meaningful interventions that will change lives.

For more information on City of Refuge, Restoration ATL, and Georgia Center for Opportunity‘s work, please follow the links.